A Springtime Hike in the Hills

Five miles is a heck of a way to start hiking season.

One of the benefits of being self-employed with an extremely flexible schedule is the ability to enjoy outdoor activities any day of the week. I abhor crowds so I try to do my hikes and bike rides and other activities when most folks are at work or school: in other words, mid-week.

My friend Susan is the same way. A retired attorney from the Seattle side of the mountains, she also likes to hike mid-week. So when a mutual friend introduced us last autumn, we seemed like a perfect match for hiking.

She got in touch last week when I was in California. I was crazy busy that week and expecting contractors to work on my home Friday and Monday, so we settled on Wednesday for a midday hike. The weather had been unseasonably warm, getting up into the high 60s every day, and the high desert landscape in the Wenatchee area was green and already studded with spring flowers. It would be an early start to the hiking season and, after spending too much time working on my home and traveling over the past few months, I really liked the idea of a day off.

I made a Home Depot/Lowe’s run in the morning with the thought of dropping off my purchases and meeting Sue at her home at 12:30 PM as planned. I didn’t expect to take nearly two hours in Home Depot and then wait 30 minutes in Lowe’s for them to bring my special order out. (Seriously: what is it with Lowe’s? This is the second consecutive time I’ve had to wait an unreasonable amount of time for them to bring an order out.) So when I got to Sue’s at 12:30, my Jeep was too full of lumber for Sue to fit. That meant running home to drop off my purchases. We didn’t get on the road to the trail until nearly 1:30.

Fortunately, the trailhead was close. To stay out of the wind, Sue had suggested Dry Gulch, which goes up a canyon. I wasn’t familiar with the trail names — I normally just hiked wherever there was a trail that looked good — and didn’t realize that I had hiked there once before with another friend back in the summer of 2012. It would be a bit of a climb and, since I suspected I was coming down with a cold, I wasn’t sure I was up to it. I warned Sue that I might not last very long and she said she understood. First hike of the season wasn’t expected to be long anyway.

Saddle Rock
Saddle Rock, from the southern trailhead near the end of Miller Street.

The trail had a surprising number of people on it, including kids. That’s when I realized it was spring break week. Most people prefer the hike up to Saddle Rock, which shares a parking lot. It’s a steep, exposed trail, not suitable for our first hike of the season on a windy day. It has amazing, sweeping views of downtown Wenatchee and beyond, which is one of the reasons it’s so popular. Dry Gulch was good enough for me. I don’t need to hike up a mountain to get views.

The trail climbs up an old road grade into a canyon crossed by one earthen dam after another. Up canyon from each damn is a dry (right now) pond. After climbing pretty steadily for about a mile, the trail crosses a larger dam. This is the point at which my friend and I had turned around back in 2012, going down a different trail. But Sue and I continued up the north side of Dry Gulch on a very easy, nearly flat trail that wound along the edge of the dry reservoir. (We basically took the green “A” trail on this map.)

Dry Gulch
You can see down into Wenatchee from various points on the Dry Gulch trail.

Penny on the Trail
There are various rock formations on either side of the trail. This one was particularly beautiful, surrounded by blooming trees with green grass and balsamroot flowers at its foot. Can you see Penny?

As we hiked, we chatted about all kinds of things. Sue is really into geology and fossils and gave me a little lesson on the area’s rocks. She also pointed out a place where she’d found some good leaf fossils in the past. We took our time climbing the first mile of easy trail, making several rest stops along the way.

Penny spent about half the time leashed; once we got beyond where the other hikers were, I let her loose to run around a bit. There were marmots in the area making a bird-like chirping noise. Every once in a while, we’d catch sight of one running on the slopes. Penny obviously smelled them and even caught sight of a few of them on our return hike. I think her experiences with our barn cats, which are about the same size, taught her to keep her distance.

Lupine
I was quite surprised to see lupine blooming up the trail; it’s just starting to come up at my home. Can you see the bumblebee?

After the dam, we turned left on the trail to continue up the gulch. This was, by far, my favorite part of the hike. The trail followed the edge of the reservoir but was much higher, looking down at it. After passing through a locked gate — we had to slide sideways between the rails — the trail narrowed and wound among balsamroot and lupines. We passed various signs of old mining activity, including low concrete walls at the mouths of side canyons. It was quiet — not another soul was on this part of the trail. We saw evidence of deer and elk — hoofprints and droppings. Cows and horses, too.The canyon narrowed considerably and the trail nearly dead-ended at an old dam. Its gate was gone and a trickle of water from upstream meandered through. It was cool and shady. A nice place for a picnic.

End of TrailThe trail continued as a narrow ribbon up into the canyon past the point where we turned back.

By this time, I’d had enough of the hike. I was surprised I’d come as far as I did — even though I didn’t know at the time how far we’d walked. About a quarter mile into the hike back, I remembered to turn on my GPS tracker. When I turned it off back at the Jeep an hour later, it reported a total of 2.2 miles. That brings the total length of the hike up to about five miles. Whoa. Not bad for a first hike of the season.

It had been a great hike — just the right length for me on that day. It’s unfortunate that my favorite part of the trail required a mile-long uphill hike to reach. I’d like to find more trails like that with trailheads easier to get to. I can hike all day on level ground or even downhill, but uphill has always been a bit of a struggle for me.

After dropping off Sue, I drove home and took a nice, long soak in my tub. An hour later, I was dead asleep in a two-hour nap. Let’s see if that rest is enough to fight off this cold.

On Spur-of-the-Moment Travel

It’s amazing where you can be in just a few hours.

I’m on my third consecutive year as a frost control pilot. I haven’t written much about this, mostly because I haven’t actually had to fly a mission. But for the third year in a row I’m being paid to have my helicopter ready, with relatively short notice, to fly slowly over almond trees on cold California mornings.

The Back Story

My first year’s contract, back in the winter/spring of 2013, had a relatively low standby pay for 60 days, along with compensation to move the helicopter from its base — in Arizona, in those days — to California’s Central Valley. Because I wasn’t sure about my living situation that winter — after all, my future ex-husband could get his head out of his ass and accept the very generous settlement offer I made and I’d have to move — I moved my truck and RV to California as well, thus guaranteeing a cheap and comfortable place to live near my work. (After all, that’s why I bought the RV; as a place to live when I was on the road with the helicopter.) I spent about two months traveling with Penny the Tiny Dog between Phoenix, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, getting called out just once for two days. I happened to be in Vegas at the time, so it wasn’t a big deal to change my plane ticket and spend a few days in California instead of returning to Arizona.

Last year I took a very different contract. It paid a generous standby rate for six weeks but I had to live near the fields. This turned out to be very convenient for me since I was out of my Arizona home for good and didn’t have a home in Washington yet. I brought the RV and helicopter down in mid-February and stayed until the middle of April. I really got to know the area, made new friends, went hiking and kayaking several times, got comped on a balloon ride, and even learned to fly a gyroplane. It was like being on a paid vacation in a pleasant place, with warm days and lots to do and see. If I did have to work, it would likely be between 3 AM and 7 AM, so days were free to do as I pleased.

Although the money was great, the drawback to that contract was the simple fact that I couldn’t get back to Washington until April. I wanted to be back earlier. I wanted to experience the spring: seeing orchards in bloom and leafing out, hiking along streams full of snow-melt runoff, starting a garden. So when December 2014 rolled along, I decided to try to get a frost control contract like the first year.

And I did.

I brought the helicopter down to California on February 22. The RV would stay home — with me — as I finished work on my home and enjoyed the spring.

That’s the back story.

Call Out

Frost control is not like cherry drying. In cherry drying, I’m required to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice. I can monitor the weather closely and vary my daily routine based on the likelihood of rain. When my clients call, they expect me to be airborne in minutes.

In my frost contract, the client monitors the weather closely and, if there’s a possibility of frost, he initiates a callout. My contract requires him to do this by at least 12 hours before he expects me to fly. This gives me the time I need to get to California from Washington. I’m paid for the callout — the fee covers my transportation with a bit to spare. And then I’m paid a generous hourly pilot standby fee from the moment I get to my California base until I’m released the next morning. If I fly, I’m paid a flying rate for that. The next time I’m called out, the process starts all over again

When I brought the helicopter down to California this year, I built in a few extra days to spend some time with friends in the area. When those plans fell through, I kept myself busy by reacquainting myself with the area and visiting other friends. But I couldn’t have timed it better. I was put on standby two of the three nights I was already down here. I was able to earn the callout and standby fees without incurring the related travel expenses. Although it did require a minor flight change for my return home with a $25 fee, that’s still pretty sweet. Really made it worth the trip.

I went home last Wednesday and got back to work on my home. The cabinets were installed on Thursday and Friday and the appliances were delivered on Saturday. Timing was everything and I lucked out.

My client called on Friday to make sure he understood how much lead time I needed to get back to California. Cold temperatures were forecast for Sunday through Wednesday nights. He wasn’t calling me out — yet. But he wanted to make sure he knew how much time would be needed to get me in position. I told him that if he called me by 3 PM, I’d be able to make it to the helicopter by 10 PM and be on standby overnight.

Of course, I watched the temperatures, too. Unfortunately, the forecasts of my various weather sources aren’t nearly as accurate as those available to almond growers, by subscription, from an agricultural weather resource. I had to rely on them to call me and didn’t want to fly down unless I had to.

So each day the forecasted low was 40°F or lower, I’d be a nervous wreck, wondering whether I’d get a call. Once 4 PM rolled along, I’d relax. I did this on Sunday and Monday and got a lot of work done at my place. But I did pack an overnight bag on Monday afternoon, just in case.

On Very Short Notice…

On Tuesday, at 3:22 PM, my phone rang. It was my client. He’d been sitting on the fence about calling me down. Forecasted lows were 32° to 39° in the area. He told me that he knew from experience that if the forecast said 32°, it could go lower. Better safe than sorry. He was calling me out.

Fortunately, I was sitting at my desk answering an email message when he called. When I hung up, I got on the Alaska Air website. There was a flight out of Wenatchee at 5:20 PM — less than two hours from then — and I needed to be on it. I booked the flight from Wenatchee to Seattle to Sacramento. I’d arrive at 9:28 PM.

While I was at the computer, I searched for car rentals in Sacramento. Thrifty had one for $22/day. Rather than book online, I called directly. With my bluetooth earpiece in my ear, I made car reservations as I changed my clothes and put a few more things into that suitcase.

I decided to board Penny. She’d been with me on the last trip and I thought I’d keep things a lot simpler by leaving her behind this time. So I packed an overnight bag for her with enough food for 2 days — just in case I needed to stay over an extra night. Club Pet is on my way to the airport, so dropping her off only took 5 minutes, especially since the paperwork was already waiting for me. As I type this, she’s likely playing out in the yard with the other dogs.

I checked into my flight and chose my seats using the Alaska Air app on my phone while stopped at a traffic light. I only had one bag — a carry-on — so I didn’t need to stop at the counter.

Seattle Sunset
I got off the plane in Seattle just after sunset.

I was at the airport, through security, and sitting in the waiting area by 4:45. That’s less than 90 minutes after getting the call. At 6:07 PM, I stepped off the plane from Wenatchee onto the tarmac at SeaTac. This is one of the best things about living in a small town with airline service: it’s so damn quick and easy to catch a flight out of town when you need to.

I grabbed dinner at SeaTac’s Terminal C before catching my flight to Sacramento.

It was an amazing flight. The moon had risen and was almost full. The land beneath us was illuminated with moonlight. I sat at the window on the A side of the plane and watched as we passed Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. Our flight path took us down the Cascade range in Oregon, over the Three Sisters and other mountains there. I could clearly identify the towns I knew on Route 97 from the location of their airport beacons in relation to the town’s lights. The moon’s bright orb reflected back up at me from streams, marshes, and lakes. The flight couldn’t have been any smoother, either.

We touched down in Sacramento fifteen minutes early. I was out of the terminal waiting for the rental car shuttle bus by 9:30 PM. Later, I’d settle down in a Best Western for the night. I slept like a log until 5 AM.

Although a call to fly never came, I don’t mind making the trip. I will be well compensated for my time and the inconvenience of dropping everything to spend a few days in California. My client is satisfied, glad he can count on me to come when called. It’s all good.

I’ll kill some time here today and catch a flight home either tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m flexible and it’s a beautiful day.

Thanksgiving at Friday Harbor

New friends and great food on a busy weekend.

Since I live so far from family, I’ve gotten into the habit of spending Thanksgiving with friends. Although I got four Thanksgiving invitations this year — thanks, everyone! — I accepted the one I got first, well over a month ago: to accompany my friend Bob to Friday Harbor for Thanksgiving at his friends’ home.

The Trip Out

Friday Harbor is on San Juan Island at the very northwest corner of Washington State. It’s so far north, in fact, that it’s north of the lower end of Canada’s Vancouver Island. Getting there requires a 3-hour drive to Anacortes followed by a 1+-hour ferry ride — and that’s if Route 2 through Stevens Pass is clear and open. If Stevens is closed, add another hour to get through Blewett and Snowqualmie passes on Route 97 and I-90. Back in August, when I spent a week with a friend out at Lopez Island, I’d elected to take the helicopter out to avoid the long drive. But in winter, that didn’t seem like a reasonable possibility given the usual low clouds over the Cascades and real possibility of bad weather so I didn’t even suggest it.

San Juan Island on Map
San Juan Island is the farthest west island on this map, which also shows the mainland to the east. The black line you can see in the left top and bottom of this image is the U.S.-Canada Border.

Penny and I packed up on Wednesday and spent the night at Bob’s house. We were making an early start to catch the 8:30 ferry out of Anacortes and Bob wanted to leave at 4 AM. It was my job to keep track of the conditions in the passes so we could pick an appropriate route. WADOT offers a wealth of information about its highways and passes on its Website, including up-to-the-minute pass information and webcams. Fortunately Stevens looked good so we headed out the most direct route in Bob’s pickup. Although I’d offered to take my 4WD pickup on the trip — its tires had less than 5,000 miles on them — Bob had prepped his 2WD pickup with a set up studded snow tires, just in case weather turned bad along the drive.

Penny and Bob’s dog, Skip, settled down in the back seat for the long drive. There was no one on the road. Well, no one going our direction, anyway. We did pass a few cars coming east on Route 2. The road was clear and dry and other than a few foggy areas, easy to drive. Crossing Stevens Pass was a non event and we headed down the west side, still in the dark. The days here are short this time of year and it wasn’t until we got near I-5 that it started getting light.

We stopped for coffee at one of Washington’s ubiquitous drive-up coffee stands — honestly, how do coffee-drinking people live without these? While I chatted with the girl at the window — who was working a 6:10 AM on Thanksgiving Day, mind you — Bob took the dogs for a quick walk. Before leaving, I thanked the girl for being there and gave her a big tip to really show my appreciation. The eggnog latte was good and hot.

We stopped at Safeway in Anacortes before getting on the ferry queue. We’d brought along the fixings for quiche — 15 eggs from my chickens, along with chopped ham and scallions from Bob’s fridge — but needed a pie crust, cheese, and half-and-half. I ran in to get all these things while Bob waited with the dogs. I also bought a small Poinsettia for our hosts. I hate going anywhere empty handed — not that we were going empty-handed. In addition to our quiche ingredients, I’d brought 2 bottles of wine, a bottle of local hard cider, and a jar of honey and Bob had brought 6 bottles of Martinelli’s sparkling cider in two flavors. We had a cooler and a box full of goodies in addition to our luggage.

Inside the Ferry
Inside the ferry to Friday Harbor.

The wait for the ferry wasn’t long, but we did have time to get out and stretch our legs with the dogs one more time. Then we loaded up with the rest of the cars, winding up in the middle of the main deck on the Elwha. We hung around in the truck for a while, then went upstairs to take in the view of the islands as we sailed past. By then, it was fully light out, but overcast. The ferry boat moved along at a good clip and I used Google Maps on my phone to identify the islands as we zipped past them.

Another Ferry
Our ferry boat wasn’t the only one on the water that gray morning.

Ferry View
A look back down the deck of the ferry.

Thanksgiving Day with Friends

The ferry was an express that stopped at Friday Harbor and Sidney, B.C. only. We got into Friday Harbor just before 10 AM. From there, it was a short drive to Liz and Brad’s house on 20 acres. I think they were surprised to see us so early. Liz was just putting in the turkey.

The Pond
The pond behind Liz and Brad’s house shortly after Penny chased away all the ducks.

Bob and Skip
Bob and Skip pose for a photo at American Camp. Skip seems more interested in what Penny is doing than the camera.

After quick introductions, we established that Bob was hungry and Liz and Brad had already eaten. So Bob and I headed back out to find some breakfast in town. We wound up at a bustling local market, which was just the kind of upscale small supermarket I love, and ate breakfast sandwiches on the tailgate of Bob’s truck. Then we drove around the island to kill some time. We wound up taking a walk out at a place called American Camp, the site of an almost-war back in the 1800s. It was a good opportunity for the dogs to run around. By that time, the sky had cleared and it was becoming a beautiful day. We got as far south as the lighthouse I’d flown over back in August before heading back to the house.

The Turkey
The turkey tasted as yummy as it looked here.

Back at Liz and Brad’s house, we relaxed while the turkey cooked. Liz and I popped open that bottle of hard cider and drank almost all of it before the other guests began arriving. And there were a lot of guests. Soon the house was crowded with adults and young people drinking cider and wine and munching on crab dip, salmon spread, and hummus, chatting and having a good time.

Party Time
I took a break to snap this photo, not realizing that only half the guests had arrived at this point.

Brad carved the turkey and Liz set up a buffet line at her kitchen island. Soon, 15 of us were sitting at a pair of tables put together on an angle to fit in the dining room. The food was great — as you’d expect a Thanksgiving dinner to be — and there was a ton of it. Fortunately, I was boxed into my seat so I couldn’t easily get up for seconds. I made up for that by trying both the homemade cheese cake and apple pie for dessert.

Cleanup went quickly with so many people helping and about half of us went into the living room to watch the football game. The local team, the Seattle Seahawks, were playing the San Francisco 49ers — the perfect game for a Washington crowd. The game had started about a half hour before and Brad had DVRed it so he could fast-forward through all the commercials. I settled down on the floor with Penny on my lap. But since I’d been up since 2:30 AM — thanks to Penny needing to take a pee at Bob’s house — I was exhausted and fell asleep. I missed most of the game but woke up at the end to find the Seahawks victorious again.

The guests left in small groups after that. Soon it was just Liz, Brad, Bob, and me. We cleaned up a bit more, then retired to sleeping quarters. Penny and I were staying in the “craft room,” which was where Liz does her quilting and Brad builds large scale radio controlled airplanes that he flies on a grass strip in his back yard. The walls of the room were covered with quilts and Brad’s photos of wildlife and airplanes.

Craft Room
One of Brad’s projects in the craft room.

Black Friday — without Shopping

I slept reasonably well, waking up only once to wonder where I was. Hearing noise outside my room, I put on my slippers to join Liz while Penny went looking for and eventually found Skip. Soon Liz and Bob and I were drinking coffee while I was whipping up two quiches — one with cheddar and the other with mozzarella. I was horrified to see that I’d bought fat-free half-and-half — I mean, what’s the point, right? — but that quiche turned out just as good as the one I made with Liz’s regular half-and-half. The three of us polished off a whole quiche. Brad missed out; he had to go to work.

Afterwards, we dressed and went out for a drive in Bob’s car. It was cloudy again and cool. Liz took us to see the lavender farm, which was closed, and a handful of parks. Then we drove up to the top of a ridge where some private developer had tried (and failed) to sell 20-acre parcels that were virtually unbuildable for $210K+ each. The land now belonged to the San Juan County Land Bank, which buys up land in the area to prevent development. In the future, it would be a park with trails. We drove through Roche Harbor, where I’d flown in by helicopter for dinner with my friend Don years ago, and then headed back to Friday Harbor.

Back in town, we met up with Liz’s son Chris, his wife Kelly, and their two kids at a local holiday market. There were about 30 artists and other vendors there, selling their wares. It was refreshing to attend one of these that wasn’t full of the same southwestern stuff I’d seen over and over in Arizona when I lived there. I bought a beeswax lip balm and some locally sun-dried sea salt. I was sorely tempted by some wall sculptures, but held back by my new rule: No buying anything for my home until it’s done.

Afterwards, we went with Chris and Kelly to a house Chris and his partner are refurbishing. (Chris is a carpenter.) Originally built in the 1940s, it’s a small place with a lawn that goes down to the harbor and has the added luxury of its own boat dock. With lots of trees on its end-of-road lot, it was a pleasant location. They’d gutted the house and rebuilt it from the inside out. Although they’d been working on it for about 16 months, they were still at least a few months from completion. I looked around and got some ideas for wood trim around my windows and flooring. The countertop material, PaperStone, was amazing and I will definitely check it out for my own kitchen countertops.

From there we went back to Roche Harbor to look at another house that Brad is overseeing the construction of. This was an upscale home, 3800 square feet, with vaulted ceilings, sweeping staircases, and lots of extras. Pretty amazing for a 2-bedroom home. The two projects — Chris’s and Brad’s — couldn’t be any more different. Here, I took mental notes on the great room’s ceiling, which was tongue-and-groove cedar planks, and bathroom tile work. I also liked the track lighting, which I’d already decided to use in my hallway, which would double as a photo gallery. The home’s owner was there, fiddling around with his computer and the various light switches that made up his smart home system. Although I plan to include some smart home accessories in my place, I don’t expect to do it to the extent that he did.

Loft Ladder
I shot this photo of the ladder to the loft in Chris’s house so I could remember some of its details. My home also has a loft — mostly for storage — and I’ve been thinking of how it could be easily reached from below.

We headed back to Liz’s house and took it easy for a while, just chatting in the kitchen over tea. Later, when Brad got home from work, we headed out to Chris’s house for a taco dinner. His family lives in an expanded cabin at the end of a long, steep dirt road. We arrived and departed after nightfall, so I didn’t get a chance to really see it. But it was cosy inside, with an eat-in kitchen, sunken living room, and wood-burning fireplace. After dinner, I got so comfortable on the sofa that I almost fell asleep again.

The Trip Home

We were up at 5 on Saturday, packing up for the trip home. Bob wanted to get on the 8 AM ferry and we’d been advised to get the car on line by 6:45 at the latest. We headed out there and got the first spot in lane 3, then walked up to The Hungry Clam, which was already almost full by then. Apparently, the place exists for ferry traffic meals. Liz and Brad joined us for a big farewell breakfast.

Outside, it was very cold and very windy. There were whitecaps on the harbor. We paid the bill just as the ferry rounded the corner and headed into the dock. We said our goodbyes with a lot of hugs and promises by Liz and Brad to come see us on “the dry side,” then hurried down to the truck. Poor Penny and Skip needed a lot of hugging and rubbing to warm up!

Because the second car in line 1 was empty and there was a truck in line 2, the ferry loaders waved us aboard as the second car on the boat. This positioned us right at the front — although they didn’t load us all the way to the line. (It later became apparent why they didn’t have us drive up closer to the edge.) Ahead of us, the water was more than a little choppy and the wind was mostly blowing right in. I got out to take a photo closer to the edge and thought I was going to get blown away.

Choppy Water
I got got right up to the pedestrian rope to take this shot. It was wicked windy and cold!

We stayed in the car for the whole trip, mostly so we could periodically start it and warm it back up for the dogs. I was glad we did. The water got progressively rougher as we got closer to Anacortes. About 30 minutes out, a loudspeaker warned of the rough ride ahead. The boat rolled in the waves and we could clearly hear waves breaking across its side. Occasionally, the front end would dip down just enough to send a wave of water onto the deck. One wave came so far into the boat that it splashed the hood of the truck. There was water sloshing around all over the deck. Several of the chocks the loaders had placed around the front tires of the cars at the head of the lines got loose and washed back and forth. I think a few might have gone overboard.


This minute-long video gives you an idea of what we experienced. A larger wave than these washed over the hood of our truck, which was at least 50 feet back from the bow. You can see Mount Baker in the distance throughout much of this video.

After hearing about so many ferry accidents overseas, I admit that I was more than a little nervous — especially when the captain kept cutting power to slow us down more and more. But then we got closer to Anacortes and the water calmed a bit. Soon we were pulling into the dock and the crew was moving the ramp into position. I was very glad when Bob steered us off the boat and onto dry land.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of our homeward bound adventure. All morning long, I’d been checking conditions in the passes. Stevens Pass, our preferred route, was reporting 24° with compact snow on the roadway and snow falling. Restrictions were “traction tires advised, oversized vehicles prohibited.” But things were worse at Snowqualmie: falling snow, areas of low visibility, and chains required. It looked as if Stevens would be our route.

All around us was fresh snow that had likely fallen overnight. It was beautiful to see — I don’t think they usually get much snow on the Seattle side of the mountains. There were a lot of cars on the road, too, but not enough to make what I’d consider “traffic.” We got on Route 2 eastbound and stopped at the Sultan Bakery for some baked goods to snack on along the way. One more stop at a park-and-ride nearby for the dogs to take a break. Then back on the road for our climb up into the mountains.

Soon it was snowing on us. The road looked remarkably as it had in the webcam photos I’d studied all morning on my phone: covered with snow with just patches of pavement showing through. Bob’s studded snow tires came in handy as we followed the other cars up the mountain. Snow fell all around us. I was glad Bob was driving. I absolutely detest highway driving in the snow.

Snow on Highway 2
Snow on Highway 2 on our way to Stevens pass and beyond.

We were both very surprised to see most of the cars turn into Stevens Pass ski resort, which I didn’t realize was open. The road was worse on the west side of the pass, but soon cleared up, although snow continued to fall past Coles Corner. By the time we got to Leavenworth, it was mostly sunny — a beautiful day with fresh snow on the ground and in trees. There was less snow in Wenatchee and, when Bob dropped me off at home, I estimated only about an inch of fresh stuff at my place.

I’d had a wonderful weekend away with Bob and his friends. Not only had I met some great new people, but I’d come away with a lot of new ideas for finishing my home. It was well worth the drive — and the adventure that had gone with it.

A Jeep Trip to Mission Ridge

A surprisingly wonderful midday out.

I’ve been debating what to do this winter. I don’t have much work here in the Wenatchee area other than writing, which I can do anywhere. I will likely be heading down to California in January anyway to record a new course for Lynda.com. I’ve been thinking about spending a month or two in Arizona — after all, I do still own a home there — and I have friends to visit and hike with. But local friends are encouraging me to stick around and even do something crazy (for me): take up downhill skiing.

So I have options.

Heli Skiing

A chat with a pilot friend yesterday morning got me thinking about heli skiing — where you use a helicopter as a ski lift to take you (very) quickly to the top of the slopes. And that got me thinking of my friend Don and Mission Ridge.

Don is an avid skier. He’s rejoicing over the early opening of the local ski resort, Mission Ridge, and is determined to be one of the first on line for the lift on Saturday.

Don’s been talking to me on and off about offering heli skiing at Mission Ridge. He says I can drop off skiers at the microwave towers at the top of the ridge. And then he offered to drive up there with me.

I didn’t realize we could drive up. But since there are towers up there, of course you can drive up. I didn’t know how to get there but offered to drive. I met him with my Jeep at his house at about 10:30 AM. The plan was to scout for a landing zone so I could propose a heli-skiing service to the folks at Mission Ridge.

Top of Mission Ridge
This ski trail map by the folks at Mission Ridge really exaggerates the mountains and distances. The arrow points to my proposed landing zone.

The Drive Up

We took two cars — my Jeep and Don’s truck — to the turnoff for Jumpoff Road off of Stemilt Loop Road. No sense in me driving all the way back to Don’s house when we were done, especially since the Jumpoff turn was closer to my place than his.

Jumpoff, by the way, is the name of the ridge behind my home. There’s a basalt cliff face to the south of me that soars at least 500 feet straight up. The top of that is called Jumpoff Ridge. There’s a road that winds up the side of the mountain near Stemilt Hill to the west of me. From there, another road turns off to follow power lines up the mountain. And then another road breaks off to the microwave towers overlooking the resort on Wenatchee Mountain, elevation 6742 feet.

It was not a short drive. It wasn’t smooth, either. Although the first road, Jumpoff Ridge Road, was relatively smooth and well-maintained, the next two roads weren’t maintained at all. The power line road was pretty straight in most places, but was filled with large rocks that forced me to drive slowly. Most of it was in clearings filled with bunch grass and sagebrush much like I have at my home. Whenever we left the power line, the road got windy and sometimes steep. That’s where it made its way through forests of tall pine trees.

Snow appeared on the road after the first seven or eight miles and was a few inches thick a bit farther up. I had to switch into four wheel drive at a particularly steep spot. My tire tracks were the first ones in the snow, which may have fallen overnight. Although we were on a ridge for much of the time, low clouds made it impossible to see very far in any direction. Indeed, by the time we reached the first antenna installation, a light freezing fog was blowing past. Beneath it, out to the south, we could see glimpses of where the valley dropped down toward Ellensburg.

If you’re curious about our exact route, you can find it here on Gaia GPS. I tracked it with their app on my phone.

After about an hour of driving, Don opened his backpack and pulled out a snack. He fed me cheese, crackers, and smoked turkey as I drove. That was a good thing since I’d forgotten to eat breakfast.

We made one stop along the way. There was a weird trail across the road and Don wanted to check it out. While he did that, I made a pit stop behind a tree. Then we were on our way again.

The drive to the end of the road took about 1-1/2 hours. We’d driven 15.7 miles and climbed more than 3000 feet in elevation.

At Wenatchee Mountain

At the end of the road was the Communication Facility at Wenatchee Mountain. It consists of two small buildings — both locked up tight — and a bunch of antennas. I shut off the Jeep and we all got out — Penny, too — to take a look. It was surprisingly windy up there — it wasn’t windy down below — and the wind chill must have brought it down to the teens. Exposed skin froze quickly, but the rest of me was pretty warm in heavy jeans and three layers (cotton shirt, fleece sweatshirt, and the junky polyester winter shell I’d bought at Costco for just $20). I was wearing a scarf (of course) which I soon used to cover my head and ears. (My hair, which is longer now than it’s been in about 30 years, does a good job keeping my ears warm, but not when it’s windy.)

I was thrilled to see a large, level spot that would be perfect for landing the helicopter — provided the snow wasn’t too deep there. There wasn’t much snow on the ground that day — the wind had blown the powder mostly away. I assumed the wind would almost always be coming from the south so I’d have to land into that direction. There was a clearing between trees to the north that would make that easy. And the departure off the top of the ridge to the south would be a piece of cake. A quick turn back to the north and then an autorotative descent to the starting point. I suspected I’d be able to turn a ride with two passengers on board in less than 10 minutes. With at least $50/person, I few hours each weekend morning could be lucrative enough to make me stay in Wenatchee all winter.

Wenatchee Mountain
Here’s a topo map of the top of the mountain. The terrain drops off sharply to the north, south, and west.

We turned to the larger of the two buildings and the lookout point to its south. The view from Wenatchee Mountain was breathtaking in almost every direction. There were still clouds off to the southwest, trying to drift over the ridge but not quite making it. The entire ski resort lay spread out before us — we could see trails, lifts, and buildings along the way.

Christmas Card Image
The small pine trees at the northwest edge of the mountaintop were still wearing the snow coats they’d acquired the night before. Wenatchee sits in the valley in the center left of this shot. I think this is a perfect Christmas Card photo, don’t you?

Panorama
Did you say you wanted a panorama? Here you go. You should see it in full size. I think this will look great enlarged and hung over my stairs — I really didn’t want that Monument Valley canvas triptich anyway.

Don explained how skiers would get up to the spot where we stood: a ride up on Lift 2 followed by a trip along the boundary and a climb on foot to where we stood. He said the area where the Jeep was parked was a natural snow bowl surrounded by a windbreak. He was clearly excited about the prospect of getting up there by helicopter. Despite the wind, I was getting excited about the possibility of bringing him and others.

Dognaldo in the Jeep
Don in the Jeep at the top of Wenatchee Mountain.

We hung out for a while and I took a bunch of photos while he shot off some bottle rockets to encourage snowfall. Before we started the drive back, I took a picture of Don in the Jeep, making a face at me.

Clear Lake

We took a slightly different route back that avoided much of the power line and wound down the side of the mountain toward Stemilt Hill, completely avoiding Jumpoff Ridge Road. Our path took us past an area where the mostly eaten carcass of an elk lay and an eagle sat stood up in a tree. I suspected that we’d interrupted his meal.

I stopped the Jeep but left it running and left Penny inside. Don and I each tried to approach the eagle to get a better photo. We spooked him, of course, and I got a decent shot of it taking off.

Eagle in a Tree Eagle Taking Off
An eagle watched us from a perch in a tree, then took off when we got too close.

We continued down the mountain, snacking on chocolate chips and honey roasted nuts. The road wound into the forest and took us close to Clear Lake, where Don suggested we stop for a look.

On the Shore of Clear Lake
On the shore of Clear Lake.

The lake is really just a small reservoir used to irrigate orchards on Stemilt Hill. Irrigation was turned off that time of year and the lake looked about half full. It was also frozen. Frozen enough to walk on. We figure the ice was anywhere from 3 to 6 inches thick.

Understand that our area of Washington was hit with a cold snap about a week ago that lasted a full week. We’re just coming out of it now. Low temperatures at my place have been in the teens for most of that time with highs below freezing. Today was the warmest day in a while, reaching about 35°F. I’m talking cold.

So it was no surprise to me that a lake at least 2,000 feet higher in elevation than where I live should be frozen. What was a surprise was (1) how thick that ice was and (2) how many rocks were sitting on the ice.


I shot this video of Don with my iPhone. Look at it in full screen with sound full up.

We walked around on the ice. Don slid around. We both agreed that if we had ice skates, we could be skating. He tossed large rocks across the ice so we could listen to the weird sounds they made. He fired a shot from his 22 pistol into the ice away from us. Later, we went to find the spot the bullet hit. A scratch was dug about an inch and a half into the ice and the bullet was nowhere to be seen.

I took a lot of artsy photos. At least I tried to. Later, I stuffed Penny into my jacket to keep her warm while we walked along the edge of the lake.

Clear Lake, Frozen
Clear Lake was frozen. Suitable for skating frozen.

Parting Company

We climbed back in the Jeep and followed the road the rest of the way down the mountain. It intersected with Stemilt Loop Road less than a half mile from where we’d left Don’s truck.

We talked briefly about trying to set up a meeting with the folks at Mission Ridge. I’m not sure if they’ll go for the heli-skiing idea, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d enjoyed our day out no matter what came of our “research.”

We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Fifteen minutes later, I was home. Not only did the four hour midday break leave me with a head full of good memories from an outing with a friend, but I had lots of ideas for places to camp and take my ATV and Jeep when spring and summer return. It never ceases to amaze me how many truly incredible spots are so close to where I live.

A Hike in the Mountains

What a great trail!

On Wednesday, I went hiking with my new midweek hiking friends, Sue and Jerry. They’re both retired and they know a lot of local trails — including more than a few just a short distance from our homes.

Penny in 2012
I found this photo of Penny shot that day in August 2012. She was probably about 5 months old here.

Wednesday’s hike was actually on two different trails: Devils Spur and Beehive. We drove up toward Mission Ridge on Mission Ridge Road and parked at the last switchback, which is the trailhead for the Devils Spur Trail. There’s a viewpoint there where you can look down into Squilchuck Valley — I’d been there a few times in the past — and a closed road that led off into the forest. I’d hiked a bit on that road with Penny the Tiny Dog back in 2012, but hadn’t gone far, mostly because I was worried about Penny and the potential for encountering predatory animals on a trail I knew nothing about.

But Sue and Jerry knew the trail well. It wound into the forest, a former road blocked off for hiking and biking only. I was surprised to see felled trees and cleared forest a little way in — it certainly hadn’t been like that two years ago — but realized it likely had to do with the 2012 fires that occurred after my hike with Penny. Then the forest returned to its natural dense growth.

Forest Trail
Can you see Penny sniffing at something up ahead on the trail?

It was cool and moist in the shade — so unlike the desert around my home less than 10 miles away. I was glad I’d worn a fleece sweatshirt. But just when it got uncomfortably cool, the trail would open up to a dry, exposed patch, full of warm sunlight. The sweatshirt came off. And just when I was starting to get really hot, the trail dove back into cool, shady forest. It made the switch over and over for the entire length of the hike.

Jerry accompanied us about a mile up Devils Spur trail. Just before the trail narrowed, he turned back. He has a bit of acrophobia and a while later, I realized why he didn’t want to continue with us — the trail wound along a narrow ledge on a cliff face of volcanic talus. Instead, he went back to get the car and drive it around to the Beehive Trailhead where we’d emerge some time later.

Sue and I (with Penny) continued along the trail. Sue is very knowledgeable about the mushrooms we saw along the way and even pointed out some clearly visible fossils on a rocky outcropping the trail passed. Penny ran ahead as she always does, occasionally running back to hurry us along. The trail climbed about 600 feet over about 2 miles — a gentle grade that didn’t require many rest stops. It was a perfect day for hiking, with calm winds, cool air, and clear skies.

Fossilized Leaf
I would have walked right past this rock full of fossils if Sue hadn’t pointed it out. This leaf was especially clear and easy to see.

The trail approached the old Pipeline trail, which runs alongside Forest Road 9712. I’d driven quite a distance on that gravel road in 2013 several times, including with my friend Janet, who was visiting from Colorado. Recently, I’d taken the Jeep up there with my friend Bob and noted that they were doing some sort of work on the pipeline. That Wednesday, they were hard at it and as we got close, we heard the steady beep-beep-beep trucks backing up. We never did see them, though. The trail reached 9712 where it turned back downhill as the Beehive Trail and we started our descent to Beehive Reservoir.

Vista from Trail
There were sweeping vistas down toward Wenatchee from various points along the trail. My home is at the base of the cliffs nearly dead center in this photo.

We were about a mile down the trail when we saw another hiker approaching from the other direction. It was Jerry. He’d parked the car and walked up to meet us. I assumed we were close, but there was still another mile or so to go. I think he got the same length hike we got, but did two out-and-backs rather than a long one-way hike.

Hike Track
Here’s our track as recorded by Gaia GPS. The blue pins indicate places I took photos; the photos are uploaded with the track on Gaia Cloud.

The hike was just the right length for me: just over 4 miles. I tracked it with Gaia GPS on my iPhone, which I highly recommend to anyone who hikes with a smartphone. (The main benefit: being able to load detailed topo maps before starting the hike so a cell phone signal is not necessary to view live location-on-map data.) I took photos along the way and later uploaded the track and photos to the Gaia Cloud.

It was a great hike — one I hope to do again, perhaps with my Meetup group. This is certainly the right time of year for it. Many thanks to Sue and Jerry for introducing it to me!